Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Horsemeat and the quality of governance


Do you like to know what you're eating? Yes, I bet you do. The last few weeks have been pretty depressing then, haven't they? The revelation that there's horsemeat in a lot of low-cost British and Irish (and some continental) beef is a nasty shock (above), though perhaps one that's been brewing for some time.

Because this crisis tells us four things about the neo-liberal state that we'd rather not see.

Firstly, regulation has been too lax. Again. The Food Standards Agency has been subjected to a confusing command-and-control structure, and had to implement cuts like the rest of the public sector - including to its meat hygiene service. That's allowed a mix of ingredients to flood around the system without adequate checks at each stage. That turns out not to have been such a good idea. Yes, and the sky is blue.

Secondly, our supermarkets are too powerful. I like Sainsbury's. You might like Asda. Some other people might like Tesco's (though I struggle to understand why). We all go to them. They're cheap. They're easy to navigate. We can throw everything into the car in one go. But they're also a deadly trap if we buy their processed goods, because they've been ramming their influence and market power down farmers' throats for so long now that they've perverted the entire food chain. Think your beef comes from a nice red-faced man's single farm in Somerset? Think again. The supermarkets are a rapacious economic machine, and they're willing to shred and mechanically reconstitute everything they can get their hands on - on a continent-wide scale.

Thirdly, our supply chains are too complex, too disaggregated and too difficult to understand. You know what? No-one really knows where all the bits of food on your plate come from if you're eating processed food. Chunks of it can come from across the European Union and beyond, as manufacturers desparately try to please supermarkets and a number of market players bargain each other down on price. If  that's not a worrying thought, then I admire your sangfroid.

Fourth and last, blaming everybody else for your problems is a nice-and-easy way of feeling good about them. But it solves nothing. You can point the finger all you like at Romania - and any number of pony-and-trap pictures in the newspapers and on TV made that point vividly enough. Oh, are horses not needed on Romania's roads now? Maybe they're ending up in your burger. A mix of sentimentality, racism, over-confidence and fear meant that the 'Other' got blamed. Nastly Eastern Europeans were adulterating your meat. Except it might well not be true. The poison might be in Western Europe, or here in the UK. No-one knows yet. And if it isn't true, blaming stereotyped villains won't have stood up to much as an investigative strategy.

It's a pity, because I thought we'd learned from the terrifying 'mad cow' saga, in which BSE in the beef herd was transferred to humans as the deadly illness vCJD. To an unknown number of people - perhaps many thousands in the UK. Firstly, to make sure that each part of the food chain is monitored, not just the end points; that cheapness isn't everything; that moving arnimals and meat about isn't he best idea in the world; and that often there's no-one to blame but our own greed and our own governments.

But it appears that, no, indeed we haven't learned from history after all. What a surprise.

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